Already back in the 1990s, Enslaved abandoned familiar black metal concepts in order to explore more versatile and melodic forms of expression, but although I had been familiar with them for years and had a couple of their albums on my shelf, nothing could have prepared me for the impact with which Vertebrae hit me upon its release four years ago. Not all fans from the early days were happy with the band’s increasingly progressive direction, but in my ears, the 2008 album was simply perfect, and still is. Anticipations therefore ran high when Axioma Ethica Odini followed in 2010, but no matter how many times I listened to it, and several highlights notwithstanding, it never managed to come close to its predecessor in my book. The all-Norwegian Sleeping Gods EP (2011) was more to my taste, yet again quite different, as was the slightly more recent non-album single Thorn. And now, another full length album – what on earth is it gonna be like? Since we’re talking about Enslaved here, the safest advice is to expect the unexpected.
The 9 ½-minute opening track, “Thoughts Like Hammers”, has been available on youtube for a while, complete with lyrics, and it does make for an appropriate teaser, as it showcases all of the album’s major elements. The in-your-face cacophony that serves as an intro may turn off the less adventurous, but after half a minute, it gives way to a killer riff and the trademark interplay between clean and harsh vocals. From surprising breaks and odd time signatures to sublime melodies and archetypal poetry with plenty of room for personal interpretation, it’s all there. And this is just the beginning…
The second song, “Death In The Eyes Of Dawn” starts with an interesting melody and contains one of the album’s finest guitar solos, but above all it stresses just how much of a defining factor keyboardist Herbrand Larsen’s clean vocals have become and how effectively they contrast with the brutal styles of Grutle Kjellson and Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal. This song also contains one of the album’s most far-out breaks, but just before everything falls apart and dissolves into free jazz, the vocals resume and tie it all together. The acoustic outro is another surprising turn, but it makes a perfect prelude to the slightly calmer “Veilburner”. For a fan of Vertebrae like me, this song is an instant winner, its chorus being one of Enslaved’s most spellbinding ever. For good measure, the sheer beauty of its melody is contrasted – and fortified – by the background growls, and the abrupt ending, followed by the all-out aggression of the next song’s intro, is downright brutal in itself.
That next track, “Root Of The Mountain”, is a powerful symbiosis of Vertebrae’s hymnic grandeur and the daring experimentalism of Axioma Ethica Odini. A bold display of dynamics, it highlights in turn the whole instrumental arsenal of the band, from driving double bass assaults to a soft mellotron interlude, a soaring guitar lead here and funky bass solo there, not forgetting the acoustic guitars that introduce yet another part when you just thought the song was over. Which sure as hell it isn’t, there’s yet two more minutes of awesomeness to come.
Then it’s time for the title track, its Old-Norse-style name actually a word made up by the band, to be loosely translated into “the rites of man”. The song is the shortest on the album and closer to traditional structure than any of the others, although the “Hail the flames inside you” mantra which underlies the growled chorus is only one of several reminders of how far from conventional metal the Norwegians have drifted. On the other hand, the blastbeat outro should reconcile even the most die-hard old-school fan.
Based on hearing only, I do not venture to say too much about the lyrics, but the inner flame, in varying meanings, is a recurring motif, and on the whole the album appears to be a direct continuation of Enslaved’s long-standing exploration of the human mind and our part in the cosmic continuity, in which life and death are but parts of the same eternal cycle. Consequently, the listener encounters topics and metaphors familiar from earlier songs – for example the beacon that gave one of Axioma Ethica Odini’s best songs its title is revisited in “Materal”, the seventh song on the album. Again, here is a song that sums up the whole bandwith of Enslaved’s strengths, and more smoothly so than the rather challenging “Thoughts Like Hammers”. It also contains my favorite guitar solo of this album (not an easy choice) and another memorable chorus, although the next one turns out even better.
That is to say, on an album full of jaw-dropping choruses, the one gracing “Storm Of Memories” is second only to “Veilburner”, but it takes a long time to get there. The intro evolves into a three-minute guitar/bass jam, propelled by urgent drumming and accentuated with spacey synth effects plus a few almost whispered growls. This song definitely needs several spins before opening up. Heck, the entire album does. Be not discouraged, it’s worth the effort. The closer, “Forsaken”, drives that point home most irresistibly – already at its climax, less than seven minutes into the song, likely enough you are ready to listen to the whole thing all over again. But it’s the remaining more than four minutes of quiet reflection that really crown this stellar effort, with Larsen reciting the final verses almost a capella. After more than an hour of incessant suspense, surprise and action, it is this completely unhurried ending that finds Enslaved at its most intense and captivating. It also proves once more that it was a good idea to give Herbrand Larsen more room than ever before. The band’s line-up has been stable for almost a decade, but finding the right balance between so much talent must be a constant challenge unto itself. On Riitiir, this balance is impressively manifest in every song.
The only thing that keeps me from giving this album a full ten points is Vertebrae, which even this new masterpiece is not able to top in my personal universe. But if our scale allowed for a finer distinction than half-points, Riitiir would score at least 9,8. Complete with an honorable mention for long-standing collaborator Truls Espedal’s evocative cover artwork.
1. Thoughts Like Hammers
2. Death in the Eyes of Dawn
4. Roots of the Mountain
7. Storm of Memories